Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Musicby Arthur Kempton
The much-anticipated paperback edition of Arthur Kempton's story on the art, influence, and commerce of Black American popular music
Praise for Boogaloo:
"From Thomas A. Dorsey and gospel to Sam Cooke and the classic age of boogaloo ('soul') to George Clinton and hip hop, this comprehensive analysis of African-American popular music is a deep and gorgeous
The much-anticipated paperback edition of Arthur Kempton's story on the art, influence, and commerce of Black American popular music
Praise for Boogaloo:
"From Thomas A. Dorsey and gospel to Sam Cooke and the classic age of boogaloo ('soul') to George Clinton and hip hop, this comprehensive analysis of African-American popular music is a deep and gorgeous meditation on its aesthetics and business."
-Henry Louis Gates, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities, Harvard
"Surpassingly sympathetic and probing. . . . a panoramic critical survey of black popular music over seventy-five years. . . .There is no book quite like it."
-New York Review of Books
". . . moving, dense, and fascinating. . . ."
". . . a grand and sweeping survey of the history of soul music in America. . . . one of the best books of music journalism. . . ."
". . . a fascinating and often original addition to the extensive literature. . . . an astute and witty account. . . . there is plenty in Boogaloo to set the mind and heart alight, as well as some flashes of brilliance and originality rare in music writing today."
-Times Literary Supplement
- University of Michigan Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.10(d)
Read an Excerpt
Rock in a Weary Land
Two days before his first inauguration Bill Clinton's rounds brought him to Howard University for an appearance at a program celebrating Martin Luther King's birthday. Pictures on the news that night framed the next president's face behind the blue-satined torso of a young woman singing "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." She sang it stiffly, in the old-fashioned Tuskegee Institute Choir style, as though it were not the grittiest of Christian blues but belonged instead to the tradition of composed Negro spirituals that is official America's idea of black religious music mannerly enough to be presentable.
A song of the soil, "Precious Lord" had been run through a wash, rinse, and spin cycle until all the shout was out. Sixty years ago, when he started peddling songs to congregants of Negro churches, its author had forsworn as commercially unpromising the high-toned gloss imparted to their presentation by the conservatory-trained. But when appearances counted, black America was always ready to put on long white gloves in the middle of the morning. Public sacrifice of the private self is one of the endlessly undone chores of a despised tribe.
While Clinton was listening to the gentled echo of Thomas A. Dorsey's cry, the old man was somewhere alive but already lost to the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. If a nursing-home attendant had wheeled him into the dayroom to watch television reports of his dish being set before a king, Dorsey can be imagined failing to recognize in them anything of a former self. Instead, he may have had in mind hoofbeats of wild horses clattering through great halls crowded with starchy church women in"home-laundered" white uniforms fanning away the waves of heat escaping from an unbuttoned choir, or with off-duty laborers made sweaty and shrill by the transporting spectacle of a lady from home in "glittering gown" and breastplate made of golden coins, "bellowing" across the footlights, "If I . . . could fly like Noah's dove, I'd heist my wings and fly," back to where the air tasted of fish scent to "chitlin' stomp" girls cavorting on floors slick with snuff juice and spilled gin, and "belly-rubbing" rent-partyers called out to him, "Play 'em daddy, if it's all night long." Anytime Dorsey could peer through murk of church light or theatrical haze into the crowded room beyond his piano and tell himself "the house is hot," he truly felt alive.
Before he became the "Father of Gospel Music," Thomas A. Dorsey was a "king of the night." There is a photograph of him taken then that has suggested to more than one caption writer the word unsaved. He is wearing an oversize knit applejack cap, and the collar of his topcoat is rakishly upturned. His face is half-shadowed but for his large and arresting eyes that seem glazed as if from drink. His lips are parted to admit a cigarette, which he is poised to light with a match held aflame in the elongated fingers of his right hand, as nimbly curled as the forelegs of a mantis. It is the portrait of Georgia Tom, a sloe-eyed "sportsman," redolent of "tired sweat, bootleg booze, Piedmont cigarettes and Hoyttes Cologne," not long before he made the profane respectable in Afro-Christendom's highest churches. The man who said, "[My] ivories speak a language that everyone can understand."
Aframericans are a tribe marked once by bondage and again by the lie of their freedom, which for most of those unleashed meant only conscription into an indefinite term of volunteer slavery. The American South is their old country now. The salve of a selective remembrance of ancestral hard places in bad times has unscarred the tissue layered over wounds that once seemed too raw to heal. Any visceral memory of the old country's depredations has been outlived by the romance of "all- day preaching, dinner on the ground, green grass far as you could see"-a bygone burnished by the rub of contemporary disenchantments into a version of the official American mythic past, when families were closer and food was tastier, where streets were cleaner and houses, yards, and children better kept. Every summer across the South there are reunions of graduates of defunct black high schools that become occasions of attendees' rueful reflections on how much was lost to children in their communities when desegregation "washed away our schools." At least then the socially conservative traditions of Aframerican life were intact enough to produce people who withstood the worst assaults of outsiders.
Most black Americans still live among elders whose own elders were bred and born "down home," when many places there were as bitter and backward as Mississippi. But none other stood more for the biblical Egypt of the Jews' captivity. In tribal consciousness Mississippi is mythopoetic territory where people drank tears for water and suffered in the heart of a darkness that time has since softened into a pervading twilight in which no place seems as different from any other as it used to. This place that once seemed pernicious to those who fled it has become an object of nostalgia.
It was hard to be black in Mississippi and stay out of the way of the plantation's long shadow, even for the slender subset of postslave generations who were the young males some white people called "masterless men." They sized up workaday black life in Mississippi as a sucker's play and so became outlaws or were otherwise enlisted into the backstreet demimondes of Jackson, or Greenville, or Clarksdale. In the 1890s, when farm economics went bad all over the South, cities and towns began filling up with enough unruly black young to constitute an official new class-America's first-of "bad Negroes."
Thirty years after Emancipation this new breed was noticeable enough to provoke anxiety and reaction in propertied white people and loud loathing in the others, as well as embarrassment and consternation among the settled classes of black folks, ever mindful of needing to tiptoe through hair-trigger times. The "leading" Negro citizens believed that the lives even the lowest of their kind lived were admissible as evidence before the hostile court of opinion they were petitioning to grant them provisional membership in the society of white Americans. They were afraid this "reverse element" created enough stench to fill white nostrils with an odor that would confirm the old race calumny about black people smelling bad. So this earliest iteration of what modern social science calls a black underclass was said to give "the whole race an evil reputation."
Among the most blatant of these unseemlies were the stars in the Delta's dim firmament-the traveling singers who made livings circuit-riding the countryside and playing sawdust-on-the-floor joints in town, and who never hit a lick for any white man. By 1920 or so the best and brightest of these was Charlie Patton. Born around 1890, raised on Dockery's plantation in the northern Delta, Charlie Patton was playing and singing for money as a teenager. It was already evident that he "hated work like God hates sin."
He told neighbors he was too smart to labor hard. His father once had to bullwhip him. His mother said she never could do "nothing with him . . . he was just called to pick that guitar." On it Patton became a refinement of the region's distinctive style. Long after he was gone, history considered the legend of Robert Johnson and still anointed Charlie Patton "King of the Delta Blues."
His niece later described him as a "free man" who "didn't make no crops" and "just left when he got ready." When Patton was grown, he got put off Dockery's plantation for being a bad influence on its working women, keeping too many too regularly up too late. He roved, caroused, got high, fought in bars, went to jail.
He played his guitar between his legs and behind his back and beat it like a drum sometimes. He was like a troubadour in another country's feudal times and, since there were thrice as many black Delta residents as white, in a way the region's most listened-to social commentator. Charlie Patton was the Snoop Dogg of his day and place, and by 1930 he was a certified recording star.
Mississippi did its best to break "bad Negroes" whose conscientious objections to the way of things turned trangressive, by making the price for getting caught at it payable in the currency of the cotton fields-chopping and picking-on the acreage of the state penitentiary at Parchman. Parchman was the last plantation. Its workforce was undisturbed by the mechanical cotton-picker, which had displaced so many who remained on the land after World War II that local powers-that-be were chortling out loud that now they could finish shipping their "Negro problem" north. For those come lately from the fields, the Industrial Revolution would last less than half a generation.
The father of the "Father of Gospel Music," Thomas Madison Dorsey, a freedman's child, grew into one of those "highly trainable young black men" the succoring agencies of church and state hoped to find when they were outstretched to the formerly enslaved after the Civil War. Whether they were earnest bearers of "Christian civilization" or bureaucrats administering the former assets of the ruined South, these instruments of black uplift were mostly white Americans educated to British precedents. They were naturally inclined toward the imperial British model of looking after the populations they conquered and then felt obliged to improve. This meant raising up among the subjugated an educated elite to help acculturate and control others of their kind.
As soon as the war ended, missionaries from several of the big Protestant denominations fanned out across the former slave territories, setting up schools. Church schools proved the handiest method of sorting out the most assimilable Negroes. Thirty years after the war there were more "universities" for Negroes in the South than there were in England and France, though fewer than half taught any college-level courses. In 1894 Thomas Madison Dorsey graduated from one of the schools missionaries made-the Augusta Baptist Institute, which became Morehouse College-and was ordained a "competent, consecrated Christian leader for the uplift of his race."
Many of America's first slaves had been dispersed among the South Atlantic colonies, where they were halfheartedly proselytized by Anglicans. They were generally as unwarmed by this version of religion, which seemed to them to come out of books, as they were unwelcomed by its adherents. But there were unseemlier Christians around on the margins of early American life willing to admit into their fellowship outcasts and even slaves.
Baptists and Methodists had entered the colonies as a trickle of rogue sectarians. In the middle of the eighteenth century they caught the upswells of religious revival known as the Great Awakenings and broke in hard waves over the backs of the high church establishment. Their early appeal was strongest among the ill lettered, the landless, and the scorned. Baptists believed, as West Africans did, in adult rebirth and spirit possession. When the descendants of Africa encountered these others trembling "in the spirit," writhing on the floor, jabbering indicipherably, they saw for the first time manifestations in white people of something they could identify as genuine religious expression. "You must be born again" was an appeal to which they were predisposed to be susceptible, and many came when called.
By 1860 nearly all of this country's 4.5 million black residents were already second-, third-, and fourth-generation Americans.8 They found their common voice in a language they fashioned from what they heard here and from what they remembered from Africa. They made a faith of their own out of the religion they were taught here and the habits of belief that lingered with them after the memory of their original African places was gone.
Afro-Christianity fused these fragments of West Africa into an American tribe. For a long time their churches were the only institutions black people made and owned for themselves. For these reasons the church was central to Aframerican life. Their churches have been like force fields in which social and cultural currents pulsated and surged, crackling when they crossed.
After his ordination in 1894, Thomas Madison Dorsey confounded the expectations of his sponsors-the American Baptist Home Mission Society-by forgoing a settled pastorate. He became instead an itinerant preacher. His travels brought him thirty miles west of Atlanta to a hamlet called Villa Rica, a whistle-stop along the Southern Railroad line that ran through to Birmingham. There he met and married Etta Plant Spencer, the widow of a railroad worker who had shown her something of the world. Etta was so much a striver after what promises her era disclosed to children of freed slaves that she stretched far enough out of the deep country poverty into which she was born to acquire some land, some education, and an organ.
Organs were inordinately prized in those days among the black and country bred. Booker T. Washington wrote reprovingly of a household he visited in backwoods Tennessee that was adorned by an organ while four of its members shared a single fork. A farm-laboring family of twelve in turn-of-the-century Georgia was found by researchers from Atlanta University to have dedicated seventy-five of its annually earned $819 to purchasing an organ.
Her properties and his profession certified the Dorseys as what passed for elite Negroes in Carroll County, Georgia. But in a society whose overlords believed that educating a Negro just ruined a good field hand, these were not enough to spare the head of the house from needing to sharecrop, pastor two churches, and teach school the three months a year black children could go, to keep his growing family afloat. A hard year shy of the new century Thomas A. Dorsey-their eldest son-was born.
His early childhood left behind in the junior Thomas a habit of associating music and ministry with status and approbation. But he also learned that his mother's refinement and his father's education put together couldn't support their family. The Dorseys became casualties of the agrarian depression that had settled over the South late in the nineteenth century.
In 1908 they moved off their land into Atlanta, where Thomas M. Dorsey tended white people's grounds and gardens and never preached again. He ceased to belong to the huge majority of black Georgians who labored on the land and became part of the third of them who worked at serving white people in their homes and businesses. His son's young life came unmoored in the city. When he entered school there, he was put back into the first grade. He was acutely conscious of being on the wrong end of color-struck, stratified Atlanta Negro society and felt "looked upon as . . . common . . . dark-skinned, poor, shabbily-dressed and homely."
From the direct account he left of his first forty or so years-pieced together by a biographer from interviews, an unpublished auto-
biography, speeches, and other scatterings-Dorsey's everyday world seemed nearly uninhabited by white people. He was conscious of them as he would be of weather or Wall Street or world wars: he knew white people only by their effects. His family had arrived only two years after thousands of the city's white citizens burned and looted much of black Atlanta in four days and nights of vicious marauding that left twenty-five Negroes dead and a couple hundred badly hurt.
Meet the Author
Arthur Kempton was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and received a B. A. in English from Harvard. He has been a radio disk jockey, deputy superintendent of Boston’s public school system, and an educational consultant. A frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >